OBITUARY: DEREK TRAVERSI ; Last Surviving Original Member of the School of 'New Criticism'

By Blackburn, Tom | The Independent (London, England), September 27, 2005 | Go to article overview
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OBITUARY: DEREK TRAVERSI ; Last Surviving Original Member of the School of 'New Criticism'


Blackburn, Tom, The Independent (London, England)


Derek Traversi was the last living link with the group of critics who, in the years just before and through the Second World War and into the 1950s, founded and popularised what has since become known as 'New Criticism'.

Deeply influenced by T.S. Eliot and his re- evaluation and fresh analysis of the metaphysical poets of the early 17th century, writers such as I.A. Richards, William Empson, F.R. Leavis and the contributors to his journal Scrutiny " Wilson Knight and L.C. Knights in England, and later in America Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and many others " comprised a very loosely connected movement that formed in part as a reaction to the critical tendencies of the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th. Though perhaps not the most famed of this company, for more than 45 years Traversi, especially through his work on Shakespeare, was a distinguished and enduring exemplar of some of the most fruitful developments and applications of this new critical approach.

Born in Caersws, in mid-Wales, of a landed Italian father and a Monmouthshire mother, Traversi was educated at Alleyn's School and Merton College, Oxford, and went on to University College, London, where he supplemented his degree in English Literature with first class honours in Italian. Rather than pursue immediately a university position, in 1939 he began work with the British Institute in Rome. Subsequent similar terms in Madrid, Uruguay, Chile and Tehran preceded his return to Madrid and, finally, to Rome in 1965 until his retirement from the British Council when he at last entered an academic career, teaching in the United States. Throughout his travels on behalf of British culture he continued to produce critical work that would have been the envy of any university-based scholar.

Eliot himself received Traversi's critical attention in his book T.S. Eliot: the longer poems (1976); his last major work, The Literary Imagination: studies in Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare (1983), also showed the breadth of his interests. On his Shakespearean studies, however, often first published in Scrutiny, and developed throughout his career in successive expanded editions of An Approach to Shakespeare, beginning in 1938 and culminating in the two-volume edition of 1968-69, as well as the separate volumes on the last plays, the history plays, and the Roman plays, his reputation rests; and in them one may find the clearest statements and manifestations of his critical intent and methodology.

The introductory chapter of the second edition of the Approach, written in 1957 while Traversi was the British Council representative in Tehran, may stand as a general rationale for the necessity of a new critical model for the 20th century. The chapter begins with the assertion

It is impossible not to feel, at this date, that the great tradition of the 19th century " running from Goethe and Coleridge to Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy, has reached something like the limits of its usefulness . . . the methods originally associated with the Romantic school have been little more than repetitions of what Bradley and his predecessors did with greater distinction

and

The very assumptions which served as points of departure are no longer entirely acceptable.

The 'subjectivism of Romantic thought' led to a fascination with individual feelings that were attributed to the plays in ways that blocked the study of 'a balanced poetic and dramatic construction.'

The new critical solution to the problem of producing 'a complete and consistent account of the Shakespearean experience', as Traversi puts it, 'is, as far as possible, to define the experience which sought expression in the plays, and which makes them individual and valuable'. That experience is to be found in the words and verse structures in which Shakespeare chose to express it:

To proceed from the word to the image in its verse setting, and thence to trace the way in which a pattern of interdependent themes is gradually woven into the dramatic action, unifying and illuminating it, is the most fruitful approach " the most accurate, and, if properly handled, the least subject to prejudice " to Shakespeare's art.

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